There are movies meant to be seen on a big screen. “Casablanca” is one of them. In the past, now and as long as theaters show movies.
You should go to a theater even though this movie has long been repeated on TV and has been available for decades on just about every home-video format, including the now-abandoned HD DVD and Laserdisc.
And why should you go? Because it’s “Casablanca.”
Yes, to some it is merely a piece of ancient movie history. The story takes place before America entered World War II. And it premiered as war raged — first in New York City in late 1942.
The movie endures. The American Film Institute’s periodic lists of great films have placed “Casablanca” in the top five for all movies, movie heroes (Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart), songs (“As Time Goes By”) and movie quotes: “Here’s looking at you, kid,” in fifth place, but with five more “Casablanca” quotes in the top 100. Its romantic tale put it in first place on AFI’s list of great love stories.
Lines from it have inspired the titles of two other movies: “Play It Again, Sam” (which is not actually said in “Casablanca”) and Bryan Singer’s “The Usual Suspects.” It was also the basis for a Bugs Bunny cartoon and two TV series: one in the ’50s starred Charles McGraw; a second series, in 1983, put David Soul in Bogart’s shoes.
And all this came from a movie that could have been a shambles. It was based on what a critic called “one of the world’s worst plays.” The co-author of said play told writer Doug McClelland that she did not like either of the leads; instead of Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, she wanted Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. The screenplay was only half done when production began. The racism of its time is discomfiting, with the middle-aged African-American Dooley Wilson called “the boy” by Bergman. (Wilson was even more poorly served by contemporary film critic James Agee, whose naming of cast members ended with “a colored pianist whose name I forget.”)
But it’s “Casablanca.”
Twenty-first century audiences also have to contend with the staginess of some of the sets, the old standard-frame picture instead of the now-common widescreen format, and the black-and-white image. The latter should not bother film buffs. Nostalgia for young people is something applied to entertainment from a decade ago, not a movie that would have been fresh for their grandparents.
But it’s “Casablanca”!
Consider the richness and complexity of the story — which many of you know, and I’ll try not to spoil for the rest. There is a saga of war, and how people must stand up in troubled times — with Rick the one most obviously put on the spot. Laid over that is a romantic triangle involving Rick, the freedom fighter Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid) and Ilsa Lund (Bergman), who is both Lazlo’s companion and Rick’s former lover.
Love and politics are entwined. Idealism and cynicism are tested. The cast has great character actors like Claude Rains, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. The music includes not only Max Steiner’s score, and Wilson’s singing “As Time Goes By,” but a scene with the French national anthem that should still make audiences cheer.
So, if you have not seen it, do so. If you have, see it again. And not just on a DVD or Blu-ray — or on your tablet or, heaven forbid, on your phone.
This is a movie made before anyone had to imagine that the pictures would get small. When it was understood that you would be sitting in the dark, the quiet broken only by the occasional chomp on popcorn — or the crowd responding to the screen’s events together. The first time I remember seeing “Casablanca” was on a college campus, on a large screen. I have seen it many times since, but it’s that first time that stays in my memory — Bogart, and Bergman, and the movie itself, bigger than life.